FLIRTED with by many companies employing office workers for years, remote working has suddenly been fully embraced by most companies.
Clarecastle-based Paul Ellingstad is involved in the Grow Remote organisation, which promotes the benefits of remote working. The speed at which the concept has caught on since March is something no-one, including Paul, saw coming.
“This is total disruption. We launched the Limerick chapter of the Grow Remote group back on February 4. Even a month later, it was like night and day. It came in so quickly. Employers were saying ‘all our workforce is working from home if they can’. It really was a shock to the system.”
Grow Remote was established in 2018 and from a humble start, has spread across the country and abroad. “It started as 20 people informally in a WhatsApp group that were interested in trying to get more people aware of the benefits of working remotely, not only individual employees but for employers and the community as well. That was back in early 2018.
“We partnered up then with the community-based groups platform, ChangeX.org in November of 2018 and said we’d like to set up chapters and set this up as a real movement. Here we are about a year and a half later with, I think, it’s 60 chapters. It’s gone outside of Ireland, to Spain, Portugal and the US.
“It’s like any other advocacy group but instead of just one single interest, it’s really advocating for the whole concept of remote working; raising awareness of employers and job opportunities that can be done anywhere and also encouraging employers to see that there is talent all around the country and all around the world.”
While ideally remote working would begin much more gently, it has been extremely sudden, with many people trying to do it while cooped up with small children, who need to be homeschooled and entertained.
There are a lot of issues that haven’t really been addressed, given how sudden it had to start but Paul feels the biggest challenge in the longer term is getting used to new norms. “There’s everything from the tech side of it, the connectivity, to having the proper ergonomic set-up, so that you’re not sitting on a couch or whatever with a laptop on your knees. Even the processes and the psychology of it.
“I did a workshop on it in DCU in February and some of the people at that were asking how can I trust my employees to do what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re working remotely? The whole process and how you interact, that’s really the big challenge with remote working, just getting everyone accustomed to what’s the schedule and routines, what are the norms and protocols to follow, formal and informal.”
From what he has heard, he feels people have embraced a new normal in terms of working. “Both for employers and employees, there was the mystery and uncertainty and unknown. Now having been thrown into it, a lot of people have been pleasantly surprised. People are doing their work, able to work productively and able to interact with their co-workers effectively as well. I think it has been a real eye-opening experience for everyone in the last two or three months.” Away from work, he says that people are enjoying bringing the new technology into other settings.
“Interestingly, what I found even in Clarecastle, with our Tidy Towns committee and some of the other groups, it’d be arranged to have a meeting down in the old schoolhouse at 7pm on Friday for forever. That was it, you couldn’t talk people out of getting together in person. The same people now are like gurus on Zoom. They love it, it’s just as social. You develop new norms and that but they’re flying it on Zoom. I think it’s more social and accessible than having to have scheduled face-to-face meetings in the past.”
One of the interesting developments of the last few weeks has been the commitment by some tech giants to embrace remote working.
Twitter has said it will allow all its workers to be remote in the future, while Facebook has taken a more cautious approach but said it expects half its workers to be remote in time. “I didn’t watch the live broadcast by Zuckerburg but I have been shocked by some of the tech companies. With the type of work involved, many of those jobs should be able to be done remotely.
“But policy wise, they are still saying no, we’re going to have people come in and work in an office. Twitter and Square have announced they are going to permanent remote working. With Facebook, Zuckerburg is still playing it cautiously, saying they’ll look at it, they’ll look at new hires being remote and in five to 10 years, potentially 50% of the Facebook workforce being remote.
“They’re still being very cautious but what he said is absolutely right, there are so many jobs right now that people are going into the office for, that could absolutely be done from anywhere,” says Paul.
While the days of there being no alternative but to go to an office are gone, he does feel there will still be a need for companies to have a physical presence. “I think a good parallel to this is e-commerce in the early 2000s, when people said it was the end of the retail outlet and it’s all going to be online now.
“What you wound up with was a hybrid. There is still going to be needs for having office spaces but there’s going to be much more online than the you-must-go-into-the-office type of mentality.”